India could make 50 warheads under nuclear deal with Bush

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The US House of Representatives was set to vote yesterday on a nuclear deal with India that threatens to fuel a nuclear arms race in Asia. The deal, a centrepiece of the Bush administration's foreign policy, comes as the US is pressuring Iran and North Korea to halt their nuclear programmes.

Under the deal, the US will sell India nuclear fuel and technology for civilian purposes, in exchange for India putting most of its reactors under international safeguards. But a former head of Indian intelligence has said publicly the deal will allow India to produce 50 more nuclear warheads a year than it can now, by freeing up existing uranium reserves for military use.

The vote in Washington comes days after satellite photographs revealed Pakistan is building what analysts believe is a large reactor capable of producing enough plutonium for 50 warheads a year, a discovery which has led to fears of an intensified nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan.

US congressmen were yesterday trying to attach last-minute conditions to the deal with Delhi to prevent India from using it to enlarge its nuclear arsenal. But the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, said his country would accept no new conditions.

There were angry scenes in the Indian parliament as opposition parties said the existing deal already gave up too much control over India's nuclear programme.

The deal is at the heart of attempts by George Bush to forge a strategic alliance with India as a counterweight to the rising power of China.

It has also been touted as a major environmental initiative, since it will enable India to shift away from reliance on fossil fuels to satisfy the growing energy demands of the world's second fastest growing economy.

But observers are now warning that behind the environmental claim lies a deal that will allow India massively to increase its nuclear arsenal.

India currently produces most of its electricity from coal power stations, and its demand for oil is expected to rise. Delhi wants to invest in nuclear power, but India has very limited sources of uranium to fuel its reactors, and has been barred from buying nuclear fuel from other countries because it developed the nuclear bomb in defiance of international calls for non-proliferation.

Under the new nuclear deal, the US will exempt India from its own laws banning any nuclear dealings with countries that do not submit to international inspections, and sell it nuclear fuel and reactors. In return, India is to place 13 of its existing reactors under international safeguards.